Ascari is not a race track. It might look like one, but it doesn't actually hold races, not in the conventional sense. In fact, it is a 'race resort' - somewhere for wealthy car enthusiasts (and indeed car companies) to come and strut their stuff, show their wares, and generally get up to licenced hooliganism.
So, while it's not a 'proper' race track, what it does have is a lot of great racing corners, or at least replicas of them. Around the 5.4km length of the full Ascari circuit, lying in the cleft of hills just outside the Spanish town of Ronda, you'll find recreations of the old Copse at Silverstone, a 6/8ths recreation of Eau Rouge, even a section of the Daytona banking in miniature. If you were to lay down a track of racing's greatest hits in your back garden, this is pretty much how you'd do it.
So, bringing a Porsche here has a certain, shall we say, resonance. The new 718 Cayman GTS is hardly the most expensive, certainly not the most powerful, arguably not the most thrilling car that the famed Stuttgart marque has ever made, but like the replica corners of Ascari, it has a bloodline, a kinship of serious provenance. Porsches win races, and so a track-day Porsche should excel at a pretend race track, right?
Not that the Cayman GTS is exactly a stripped-down track-day special. Far from it. It has sumptuous Alcantara-swathed bucket seats, a big touchscreen with Porsche Communications Management, Apple CarPlay and a new track app that sends the car's telemetry and your lap times to your mobile phone. It has a steering wheel wrapped in the same no-slip Alcantara fake suede as those seats and a decent stereo. It's not minimalist, that's for certain.
It does have more power than a standard 2.0-litre flat-four Cayman and more than the 2.5-litre Cayman S. In fact, the GTS has 365hp, which is really rather a lot for a car weighing a hair over 1,300kg. On top of which, thanks to the optional seven-speed PDK dual-clutch gearbox, our test Cayman GTS has an extra 10Nm of torque compared to the six-speed manual version, bringing it to a total of 430Nm. Less tactile than the manual perhaps, but here on the track, the PDK's extra performance and quicker gear changes will count for much.
We're running behind a pace car today, which in normal racing parlance would mean slowing everything down. Not today, though. Michael, our instructor, is driving a scarlet 911 Carrera S, and he's barking a constant stream of instructions, his German accent lightly underscoring his perfect English. At least I assume it is. It certainly did in the pit lane, but here on the track, the Cayman GTS's sports exhaust is chucking so much engine noise at the back of my head that I can't hear him, so this instruction session basically consists of me aiming at the bright red rump of his car, and trying to synchronise my braking and turning with his. Which I can't, because to be honest I'm rubbish on race tracks, fake ones or real ones, and most of my brain is basically tasked with carrying out a repeated loop of self-preservation instructions. We bemoan, as fans, the enormous, beach-like gravel traps of real race tracks and their distancing effects, but belting round Ascari in my mid-engined missile, the walls, Armco and Spanish scenery all look frighteningly close to the trackside. I could do with a beach, right now...
The noise will annoy those staunch Porsche fans who still carry a torch for the old flat-six engine, and a pitchfork for this new flat-four turbo. I get that, I really do, but the fact is that this engine is more efficient than the old flat-six, much more powerful and right now the hard-edged soundtrack is damn well exciting enough, a tall, flat wall of sound that speaks of anger and aggression, and damn the harmonics.
Thankfully, for me and for anyone who buys one, the Cayman GTS's chassis is rather batter at playing a tune than its engine and exhaust. In spite of my cack-handed attempts at being the new Jackie Stewart (tartan's not my colour, in fairness) the GTS is whipping from apex to apex as if born to the task. Which it is. Lower and a little stiffer than a standard Cayman (by 20mm), fitted with adaptive dampers as standard, the GTS is not a car that feels overwhelmed by a race track. I recently whipped around this same Ascari track in a Peugeot 308 GTi 270 and while that was fun, you could quickly tell that it was a road car, and not a track weapon. The Cayman GTS seems able to meld both. From driving the Boxster GTS (all but identical, save the roof) on the road, I can tell you that the extra performance and tauter suspension settings have not reduced the car's abilities as a refined, comfortable, useable everyday driver one whit. On track though, the Cayman just feels more and more at home the harder you push it. The steering is alive with feel and precision, and even with damp patches from yesterday's torrential rain pockmarking the surface, there seems to be no corner that it cannot get around, in spite of my own on-track shortcomings (I'm really more of an off-roading kind of guy...). We spend the entire session with the small rotary controller set to Sport + mode, which dials the stability and traction control way, way back and even then the Cayman only breaks away at the back once. When it did, the resultant slide was progressive and easy to catch (with electronic assistance, natch) and we were soon back, hard, on the power again.
Have we learned much here? Not really. The Boxster GTS's mix of on-road performance and civility was, if anything, more impressive and if the Cayman had been a let-down here, then the model and marque would both have been in serious hot water. It's not a let-down, though. Far from it. It's an amazing track-day car, able to cruise to the circuit in comfort, with reasonable fuel consumption, and then cut loose with the sort of precision and poise that other car makers try, and usually fail, to match, once it's past the pit-out. The Ascari track might be a replica, a playground, a bit of tarmacadam fun, but the Cayman GTS is very much the real-deal.